Tragedy turns mother into activist

Audette Shephard visited Centennial College students at their East York campus to relate the story of her son, a victim of gun violence, as well as discuss the city’s proposed handgun ban.
Audette Shephard visited Centennial College students at their East York campus to relate the story of her son, a victim of gun violence, as well as discuss the city’s proposed handgun ban.

Audette Shephard was at home one night in August 2001 when her son, Justin, came to her room to tell her that he was going out and would be back in 10 minutes.

When he hadn’t shown up within an hour, she began calling all of his friends to see if he had gone to someone’s house, but no one knew where he was. By 2 a.m. she had called the police and a few hospitals, but had no luck there either.

It wasn’t until the next day that she found out that Justin, 19, had been shot and killed. Seven years later, police still have yet to charge anyone with his murder.

Shephard has since become the chair of UMOVE (United Mothers Against Violence Everywhere) and is an advocate for the ban on handguns.

She recently visited students at Centennial College’s Centre for Creative Communications, where she talked about her experience and Toronto’s proposed handgun ban.

“The gun violence situation is not going to be cured by licensing or registering guns. I think Toronto’s future, with respect to violence, will continue unless there’s a ban on handguns,” Shephard said.

“I think the only people who should be allowed to have handguns should be police officers and those who go hunting in the woods…and they should leave (them) there.”

Mayor David Miller has been calling for the ban of handguns since last year. He unveiled an online petition April 8 that pushed for the complete ban of firearms. Now Miller’s goal is to get as many signatures as possible so that he can personally take the petition to Parliament Hill.

In a statement released by city hall, he asked citizens nation-wide to fight for a change in legislation.
The proposed ban has sparked a lot of criticism from firearm owners. When asked how she would respond to those complaints, Shephard insisted that Canadians look at the bigger picture.

“It’s important for those people to understand that as a community or part of society, it’s not all about what you want,” she said. “It’s about what’s good for the community.”

The problem, she said, is that a lot of those registered, legal guns are still at risk of being stolen and there is no guarantee they won’t be misused.

In January, John O’Keefe, a Toronto man, was leaving a bar on Yonge Street when he was accidentally shot and killed by a legally registered gun.

And the easily available illegal guns are still a problem. When Shephard asked schoolchildren from different parts of the city if it was easy to get a gun, she was surprised to see how many raised their hands to say “yes.” She said guns can easily be rented for about $50. Banning handguns is only one step in solving the problem, she said.

Along with providing young people with positive role models, Shephard believes that involving them in community activities and showcasing their positive attributes will help them focus on the a more positive lifestyle.

Last Sunday Shephard, along with other members of UMOVE, hosted “Bring it on,” a talent show for youth. The idea was to promote youth leadership in the community.

UMOVE is also working on a project to help youth who have previously been in trouble with the law learn their rights and how to use them responsibly.

Shephard said many of them can get “disillusioned” after they’ve been charged, which makes them easy targets for traffickers. She hopes this program will give them a second chance.

“A number of youth have been in trouble with the law, but they tend to believe that just because they have a criminal record no one will hire them and they can’t go back to school,” she said. “We want to let these youth know that they have the ability to apply for a pardon and can help them go through with that.”